Ryan and I first visited Butser Ancient Farm on a blustery, cold day in February 2014. We loved it so much we decided to take some workshops there this year. Ryan is booked on a sword-making workshop next month, and we both recently spent a morning there learning about ancient cooking.
Whilst cooking inside a replica Iron Age roundhouse can’t really be considered to be outdoor cooking, it was a chance to learn some techniques that we would now use outside (to avoid burning the house down!). The hearth is set up in the centre of the roundhouse, and furnished with various things for cooking – including two trivets and a pair of cast iron Welsh bakestones, already heating.
After a quick tour of the site we settle down to making our own lunch. We pair off and attempt a different dish each. Flatbreads were on the menu, along with oat cakes. Fish cooked in dough, quails eggs with celery salt and deep-fried (not very authentic!) beancakes. Ryan and I opted to make pottage, an ancient bean-based stew.
It wasn’t so different from making stew at home, to begin with – it involved a lot of chopping. There wouldn’t have been much fat around in the Iron Age, so our leek (no onions yet!) and herb seasonings were fried in the fat from bacon lardons. Then we added celery and mushrooms, some dried fruit, some tinned beans and some fresh broad beans. A stock cube and some homemade cider provided some flavour and some liquid – we added some water periodically as it boiled.
The quails eggs were cooked in water heated by hot stones that had been baking in the fire. The trick is not to use too much water…. Once they had been nicely hard boiled and shelled, they were dipped in celery salt and served on a bed of watercress for a starter. Very tasty!
After a little readjustment, there were several things cooking over the fire – our stew, flatbreads and the beancakes. The oat cakes had to wait their turn.
The fish in dough, pushed into the fire itself, wasn’t a particular success. The dough slipped off, and they had to be rescued and wrapped in tin foil before being put back to cook. Later on it was hard to remove the dough, even harder to eat bony fish in the dark, and the seasoning hadn’t permeated.
The hot oil was reused by our tutor to make batter cakes. That was dessert, along with cream cheese and yoghurt and fruit – apparently there was a lot of dairy around in the Iron Age.
We learned a little bit about life in the Iron Age, had a nice lunch and practised a few outdoor cooking skills – and came home reeking of smoke! A fun morning, and well worth doing if the opportunity arises.
Until the garden is finished, Ryan and I are limited to our bucket bbq, but we have big plans and would love to make the stew again outdoors, to try boiling quails eggs with hot rocks, and cooking things in sacrificial dough. I’m keen to get a bakestone (which could also be used indoors), which opens up a new world of cooking, beyond flatbreads. We were both a little concerned at deep-frying with a wok over an open fire, but we might look for a safer way to do that at some point. In the meantime, those beancakes could probably be squashed flat and shallow-fried, or cooked on the bakestones. A world of experimentation awaits us 🙂[If you want to try out some Iron Age recipes of your own, the Friends of Putno Wood and Mowsbury Hillfort have a PDF of Iron Age recipes you can download.